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The year is 2010. Your dad just got a Facebook, you just got an iPhone, and everyone just learned what “hipster” means and use it every chance they get. Times were changing, and no one was waiting up for any music that didn’t demand their attention. So what was the best way to get people to listen to your band at the turn of the decade? Have a ridiculous band name and have at least one member with a shaggy beard and thick glasses. That would secure you enough buzz for one good album and a relatively successful tour. After that, it was entirely in the hands of the band whether or not they would hold everyone’s attention. Dale Earnhardt Jr. Jr. ‘s newest album, The Speed of Things, is their only chance to break out of that cycle, and the music may have just enough strength to do so.
The opening track, “Beautiful Dream,” sets the tone stylistically for the album. Buzzing synth tones skitter behind vocal harmonies in the spirit of golden-era Beach Boys. The song is beat driven, like most of the songs on the album, with rather unobtrusive, standard electronic drum sounds. A few liquid guitar leads pop in and out of the mix, but for the most part, it’s synth pop. It sounds a lot like what I imagine Brian Wilson would make if you locked him in a closet with a MacBook pro and three Lunchables and told him he couldn’t come out until he had a song.
Songs like “Run,” “Knock Louder,” and “Hiding” all showcase a whimsical, childlike attitude. The vocal melody on hiding border’s sounding like a nursery rhyme, and even has a children’s choir in the chorus, but saves itself from being a tune off Yo Gabba Gabba with some interesting production and backwards samples. These songs tend to explode into to colorful, almost ironically triumphant choruses, like the staff at a T.G.I Friday’s singing you an adapted version of Happy Birthday and serving a single scoop of chocolate ice cream. Choruses that would typically sound epic and vast come off fun and light hearted with orchestral synths and snappy synthetic snares. It becomes apparent that Dale Earnhardt Jr. Jr. don’t take themselves that seriously when they whisper “We’ll scream at the top of our lungs” in the chorus of “Knock Louder.”
It takes a really strong song to have a title as awful as “If You Didn’t See Me (Then You Probably Weren’t On the Dance Floor)” and still end up being enjoyable. That seems to be a reoccurring theme on The Speed of Things, making you expect the worst, only to give you the best. Like on “Mesopatamia” which, at first, sounds like all the sounds your childhood toys make when they come to life after years of neglect, and are thirsty for revenge. Ultimately, it proves itself to be an undeniable song with the strongest and most infectious melody on the album.
On the last three songs on the album, Dale Earnhardt Jr. Jr. take off their neon dance shoes and put some grown up clothes on, with maybe the exception of a quirky tie. The first time you really get to see them is, like they warned us, off the dance floor. Take away the four to the floor beat and things can get pretty emotionally vulnerable. The last three songs simmer down and let the listener slowly come down from the relentless half hour of energy preceding it. These songs are the strongest on the album, and, ironically, are more attention grabbing than anything the band has done in the past, even their name. Perhaps it was the threat of becoming a distant internet memory like their 2010 contemporaries that made them more introspective, or maybe that was the only place they could look to after taking off their thick framed glasses. Either way, Dale Earnhardt Jr. Jr. is here to stay.